Kayla Scrivner, a community liaison specialist with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, received a call soon after the enrollment period for coverage under the Affordable Care Act opened Oct. 1.
The caller, Scrivner said, was in tears.
“It was tears of joy,” Scrivner said. “It was ‘God bless you, God bless you.’”
So far, now that enrollment has begun, “It’s been a little bumpy,” she said. “It’s been exciting.”
The Pierce County agency was one of 10 in the state charged with training people known as “navigators” and “in-person assisters” who would work directly with the public as affordable care became a reality.
“We started this program in July,” Scrivner said. “We started building the infrastructure, building community partners. It was a real mix, nine groups throughout Pierce County.”
Now, she said, the greatest confusion she encounters concerns eligibility. Some don’t understand that the program is mandatory and don’t know what they might be eligible for.
She wants people to know: “It’s easy to sign up.” They can visit wahealthplanfinder.org. They can call a customer support center at 855-923-4633.
“They will find what plan they are eligible for, what financial assistance they are eligible for, and they can compare and select a plan.”
Coverage begins in January, and eligible citizens have until March to apply.
“Ninety percent of the people in Washington who are uninsured are eligible for financial assistance,” Scrivner said. “People are really excited when they hear that.”
She said there have been some delays and glitches as the system found footing, but the Washington Health Benefit Exchange has been working to overcome those technical difficulties. And the community partners have been working to train and support the workers who staff the front line.
That effort includes two of the larger health care groups in Pierce County – MultiCare Health System and Franciscan Health System.
“We’ve trained 40-plus employees as in-person assisters,” said Dianna Kielian, senior vice president of mission at Franciscan. “These are people in front offices, so every patient can have access.”
“We started with a task force in February and March,” Kielian said. “The government has been slow, and there were some hiccups. For me, it’s been confusing who the players are, trying to understand the health exchange. In some way it’s been energizing, fun. It fits in line with our mission that people will have access to health care.”
Kielian knows that there are still people “who are on the fence. I’d say, ‘Take the risk. Go ask somebody. Let us help you through the process. Don’t wait until the last minute.’”
The next step, she said, “is communication, getting the message out, developing a robust communication plan, equipping primary clinics with the information they need.”
Most assisters, she said, meet the public in hospital admitting offices and outpatient facilities.
And when people have signed up – she expects that 75 percent of those eligible in Pierce County will eventually do so – she foresees benefits across the health care spectrum, for providers, patients and the overall commonwealth.
“People will access health care when they are sick and not wait until extreme acuity, accessing through primary care and not the emergency departments. It’s about taking responsibility. For us, we’ll see a reduction of urgent care visits to the ER.”
As with Franciscan, MultiCare Health System has been preparing for enrollment in and implementation of affordable care.
“For the last seven or eight months, we’ve been meeting with the health department,” said Lois Bernstein, senior vice president for community services. MultiCare representatives have been meeting with other providers, including Franciscan and Community Health Care. “This wasn’t a competition thing,” she said. “We knew we had to step up and educate the community.”
MultiCare trained some 50 employees to be assisters.
“People deal with change in various ways,” Bernstein said. “It’s still confusing for some people. We thought we’d have an influx, with more people than we did on the first day.”
“We’ve been caring for some of those people for years, and now some of them will have coverage,” said Claire Spain-Remy, senior vice president for MultiCare Medical Associates. “I think it’s a wonderful thing for everyone to have health care coverage. We estimate that in Pierce County there are 93,000 uninsured people who will have opportunities for coverage. We expect to see pent-up demand. We realized years ago that we had to do better at managing care rather than providing episodic care.”
To help increase the number of primary care physicians – as demand for their services increase under the ACA – MultiCare has expanded its primary care residency program, Bernstein said.
As for those who have not applied for benefits, Bernstein said, “This is the time be proactive and sign up. If not having insurance is what worried you, now they have the opportunity.”
That first day, when people had the chance to sign up, was “unremarkable,” Spain-Remy said.
“I felt that we were ready,” said Bernstein.
But still, said Spain-Remy, “I think the biggest surprises are yet to come.”C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535 c.r.roberts@ thenewstribune.com